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Robert Mackenzie Johnston (1843–1918)

by R. L. Wettenhall

This article was published:

Robert Mackenzie Johnston (1843-1918), civil servant, scientist and statistician, was born on 27 November 1843 at Connage, Inverness-shire, Scotland, son of Lachlan Johnstone, crofter, and his wife Mary, née Mackenzie. His mother died in his infancy, and he was raised by his eldest sister. He early showed an aptitude for study and became an avid reader, especially of biographies of humble boys rising to eminence by their own exertions; he also developed an interest in natural history, encouraged by Hugh Miller, a neighbouring stonemason and geologist. After village schooling he worked on a local farm but became discontented with country life and ran away from home in 1859.

At first he combined manual labour in Edinburgh with wide reading; then as a worker on railway construction in north Scotland he was able to study rocks, soil and vegetation. After he became a ticket-clerk the company promoted him to its head office in Glasgow where he attended evening classes in botany, geology and chemistry at Anderson's University. In 1870 he sold most of his possessions and sailed to Melbourne. He went on to Tasmania and that year was given charge of the accounts section of the Launceston and Western Railway; he became accountant and storekeeper when it passed into public ownership in 1872. In 1880 Johnston became chief clerk in the government Audit Department. After a composite Statistical and General Registry Department was created in 1882 he was appointed government statistician, registrar of births, deaths and marriages and registrar of trade marks and letters patent; he held these offices for thirty-six years.

With new opportunities to develop his scientific interests Johnston was soon involved in expeditions to little-known parts of the island. He published his Field Memoranda for Tasmanian Botanists in 1874. After compiling a descriptive catalogue of Tasmanian fishes in 1882 he was appointed a member of the 1883 royal commission on Tasmanian fisheries; later he joined the Salmon Commission and its successor, the Fisheries Board. He contributed many papers on palaeontology, geology, zoology and botany to the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Royal Society of Tasmania; the society also received his large collection of fossils, Aboriginal flints and natural history specimens which he had collected with Ronald Campbell Gunn. But his greatest claim to scientific fame was his monumental Systematic Account of the Geology of Tasmania (1888). Its treatment of the island's Permian, Triassic and Tertiary rocks and fossils demonstrated outstanding scientific skills and laid firm foundations for the serious study of Tasmanian geology.

Johnston also lectured and published widely on economics and social science. He was a powerful opponent of radical and collectivist economic writing. While sympathizing with the poor and unemployed and an enthusiastic supporter of old age pensions, he insisted that workers' welfare could be improved more effectively by government planning of private activity, including scientific allocation of labour, than by government ownership. In the applied field of statistics he won high repute. President of the economic and social science and statistics section of the A.A.A.S. in 1890, he was often invited to move from Hobart to more important statistical posts in other Australian colonies.

Under Johnston the scope and detail of Tasmanian statistics were broadened and methods of collection and presentation improved. He superintended the censuses of 1891 and 1901, introduced statistics of factory activity and had the finances of friendly societies placed on a sound footing. He was a major influence on the Australia-wide design of the censuses of 1891 which made radical reforms in methods, including introduction of an industrial classification to complement the traditional occupational one. In 1890-92 he published the first three issues of the Tasmanian Official Record, year-books designed to offer a more popular descriptive account of the colony and its economy than annual statistical tables could provide. Lack of funds ended the venture, but Johnston's work was acknowledged when the Tasmanian official year-books resumed in 1967. He attended all the intercolonial conferences of Australian government statisticians, and was well aware of the pressures for centralization of statistical services, especially after the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics was created in 1906. As a stout defender of State rights he opposed these moves.

Johnston also figured prominently in discussions about how surplus revenues of the new Commonwealth government should be distributed among the States, in the 1890s issuing 'showers of figures' to show how Tasmania would be disadvantaged by the arrangements originally proposed. He was from the outset a staunch advocate of distribution of the surplus on a per capita basis, with special treatment for the small States, and although his arguments were not at first accepted, he lived to see the principle adopted.

He was before his time in his ideas on municipal districts. In giving evidence to a parliamentary select committee in 1888 Johnston advocated larger municipal units, a standing board to advise the government on boundaries, and the harmonizing of the divisions so formed for all administrative purposes. In 1890-1902 he was chairman of a boundaries board of advice, although this was ineffective. He was active in the formation of the Civil Service Association in 1897 and was chairman of the newly created Civil Service Board from 1901 until its replacement in 1906 by a Public Service Board with an appointed full-time chairman. He also became a persistent advocate of the Hare-Clark system of proportional representation adopted for city electorates in the House of Assembly in 1896 and for all Tasmania in 1907; his belief in its virtues stemmed partly from his views on intrastate divisions and boundaries, and his interest was sustained by the mathematical challenge the new system presented.

Despite his great achievements, Johnston was quiet, unassuming and kindly. He never married but was almost fatherly towards his friends' children, many of whom were remembered with his Scottish nephews and nieces in his will. A fellow of the Linnean Society of London and the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia and honorary fellow of the Royal Statistical Society of London, he was awarded the Imperial Service Order in 1903. He was a member of various Anglican choirs and examined for the Royal College of Music, London. He was a member of the Hobart Committee of Technical Education in 1888-90, and in 1894-1918 served on the Council of the University of Tasmania. He died in Hobart of heart disease on 20 April 1918 and was buried in Queenborough cemetery. The statistical and administrative operating systems he advocated are as much his monument as the writings he left behind him, some of which were assembled in a memorial volume in 1921.

Select Bibliography

  • The R. M. Johnston Memorial Volume (Hob, 1921)
  • E. W. Skeats, Some Founders of Australian Geology (Syd, 1934)
  • C. D. W. Goodwin, Economic Enquiry in Australia (Durham, N.C., 1966)
  • Royal Society of Tasmania, Papers, 1918
  • Mercury (Hobart), 22, 23 Apr 1918
  • D. N. Allen, The Development of Official Statistics in Tasmania (Diploma of Public Administration dissertation, University of Tasmania, 1965)
  • Hunt Institute biographies (Australian Academy of Science Library).

Citation details

R. L. Wettenhall, 'Johnston, Robert Mackenzie (1843–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 24 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Johnstone, Robert Mackenzie

27 November, 1843
Connage, Inverness-shire, Scotland


20 April, 1918 (aged 74)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

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